DIR: David Mackenzie • WRI: Taylor Sheridan • PRO: Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Sidney Kimmel, Julie Yorn • DOP: Giles Nuttgens • ED: Jake Roberts • DES: Tom Duffield • MUS: Nick Cave, Warren Ellis • CAST: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Katy Mixon
One of the highlights of 2013 was an unexpectedly tense and exciting prison drama called Starred Up. It had its flaws but primarily showcased the future potential for Jack O’Connell in a leading role. It was a breakout for director David Mackenzie as well, indicating an unexpected talent for telling stories about hardened, macho men in testosterone fuelled surroundings. Back again this time with Hell or High Water, Mackenzie continues to display an ability to take tired genres and reinvigorate them with a nuance that has been sorely lacking from a lot of male-driven thrillers in recent years.
Two brothers (played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster) devise a plan to rob a series of banks together in order to pay off their mother’s debt before the banks take her land. Tanner and Toby Howard then take the money to nearby casinos in order to exchange it for untraceable dollars, which they can return to the same bank branches that they’ve robbed in order to pay off the sizeable debt with the bank’s own money. But their plans are threatened to be thwarted when a soon to retired sheriff (Jeff Bridges) leads an investigation with a determination to track them down before they rob again.
Hell or High Water is a western that’s as simple as they come. Characters derive from well used archetypes of the genre – the renegade, the antihero, the wise, old sheriff – but they feel refreshing in Mackenzie’s hands. Part of the reason why Hell or High Water works so well is because Mackenzie allows each actor their turn to divest the stoic machoism that often stifles films of this nature. It’s a film about men being men, yes, but Hell or High Water drops the pretence, exposes the vulnerability behind the masks, shows the afflictions and inner turmoil that troubles each man in the story. It takes away the power fantasy that the western genre often perpetuates and allows the characters to become human again. The results are evident on the screen. The characters feel more realistic and the dramatic heights become more impactful because we see the humanity behind the virility.
Although at times it suffers for its sympathetic portrayal of machismo fraternal bonds. Jeff Bridges plays a sheriff who seems almost reluctant to carry out his investigation efficiently simply because it means he can postpone his retirement as much as possible. It’s an interesting character but he also spouts frequent racist remarks to his Native American/Mexican partner to try and make him more likable. It’s a contrived attempt at creating a morally grey playing field for the cops and robbers, but the film had achieved it without the racist jokes having to be there and it leaves an uncomfortable impression throughout the running time.
Likewise, Hell or High Water suffers like so many films about hard men by confining women in the narrative to little more than window dressing. It becomes almost comical how often big bosomed women take some time out of their day to suggestively throw themselves at Chris Pine while he broodingly recollects his life story for the audience. One scene involving Ben Foster feeling antagonised by a young woman for talking to his brother is heavily edited and blocked in such a way that suggests Foster’s harassment and their contretemps had more criminal implications just below the camera. It’s simply the case that such films that want to humanize straight masculinity as a complex and conflicting experience often feel compelled to diminish other genders and ethnicities in order to do so and it’s a shame that Hell or High Water follows this trend rather than be an exception to the rule.
2016 has been a rather lacking year for cinema and Hell or High Water stands out all the more for being one of the most satisfying films that the year has had to offer. Performances from the always compelling Bridges and Foster are to be expected but Chris Pine also stands out as an actor who has charismatic potential if given more suited roles. Hell or High Water is a by-the-numbers Western but also doesn’t need to be anything more. It illustrates that, with enough tweaking and refinement, even a generic story can be made into a tense pacing thriller that can still surprise while trying to be as entertaining as possible.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Hell or High Water is released 9th September 2016